American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Hard Rock in the Fairweathers

  • Feature Article
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  • Publication Year: 1978

Hard Rock in the Fairweathers

James Wickwire

HOW could it possibly have happened? Only moments before there had been the tranquil joy of the summit. Traversing downward on hard snow, my back was turned when the sound of a fall caused me to spin around. Through the midnight dusk, I first saw A1 Givler, then Dusan Jagersky, plummeting down the 45° slope. Stunned, I watched them quickly disappear from sight as they fell down the 4000-foot north wall of P 8440. Neither Steve nor I saw the fatal slip occur. We descended for a short distance to a bulge of snow where I could look down to the Gilman glacier far below. I shouted their names, certain I would hear no answer. There was no hope. We could do nothing for our friends. The return to camp was painfully slow as we struggled the rest of the night with the strong emotions that nearly overwhelmed us. It was nine A.M. before we jümared up over the bergschrund and frontpointed the 300 feet of steep ice to our Base Camp on the col above.

Tucked away in the heart of Alaska’s Fairweather range, not far from Johns Hopkins Inlet, is an isolated group of rugged granite peaks. Not exceeding 8500 feet, Mount Abbe and its neighbors rise from sea level in steep pillars, buttresses, and ribs of rock, some tawny in the sunlight, others draped with mantles of snow and ice. Dusan Jagersky and I first saw these peaks on a flight to Mount Fairweather in 1973. The good rock we saw on the Abbes contrasted sharply with the rest of the range’s mountains. They were more creatures of snow and ice, and if there was rock, it was black schist of the kind climbers avoid.

Our objective in May 1977, however, was not the Abbe group. Jagersky, A1 Givler, Bill Sumner and Steve Marts planned a two-pronged attempt on Mount Salisbury (12,170 feet) and Mount Crillon (12,726 feet). The approach, which Steve would film along with the climb, was up Glacier Bay to Johns Hopkins Inlet, the wildest of all the bay’s water canyons. I joined the team in early May when a planned summer reconnaisance to K2 was cancelled; later, just before we departed Sumner dropped out.

In a 14-foot rubber inflatable boat overloaded with nearly 1200 pounds of gear, Steve and Dusan left Juneau on May 18. A1 and I would follow a week later. Their crossing of Icy Strait in storm-tossed waters almost ended the expedition at its inception. Two days later at the iceberg-choked mouth of Johns Hopkins Inlet, they conceded defeat and returned to Bartlett Cove thoroughly dejected. Several long distance phone calls, however, revived the expedition. We could not reach Salisbury, but Crillon was still within striking distance. Landing at Reid Inlet and climbing up the lower Reid Glacier onto the Brady icecap would provide access to a 6,000-foot ridge north of Mount Bertha. The USGS topo showed an indentation. It might be possible, we concluded, to cross over to the other side where a 3000-foot descent of an eastern branch of Johns Hopkins Glacier would allow us to reach the base of Crillon’s awesome 8000-foot north wall. This approach would be one of the longest yet taken in the Fairweather range.

As anticipated, Dusan and Steve retraced their route back up Glacier Bay to Reid Inlet. We were happily reunited on May 24 after A1 and I were flown in by float plane. We spent a day of frolicking in neoprene survival suits below the 300-foot high snout of Reid Glacier from which tons of ice fell off in periodic calving. Riding out the waves the collapsing ice caused was hilarious fun. Then came the donkey work of ferrying loads up the lower section of the glacier. But once on the nearly level icecap, we made good progress with the aid of sleds in a continuous push toward the ridge north of Bertha. In three days we were beneath the ridge indentation with only a 1500-foot snow slope separating us from entrance into the sanctuary north of Crillon.

The notorious Fairweather weather slowed us for four days. Halfway up the slope, camped in a bergschrund, we waited for good snow conditions. Avalanches were almost continuous. Early the morning of June 3, my sleep was jarred when one large avalanche seemed particularly close. Looking out of our tents two hours later, we were shocked to see that a 50-foot high section of the bergschrund, the size of a railroad boxcar, had collapsed less than ten feet from our tents. At Al’s suggestion, we relocated the tents just below the pile of ice on the theory it was the safest place.

Anxious to get up the rest of the face, we left at midnight on June 5 despite signs of another approaching storm. Snow on the face was still soft and deep forcing Dusan to trench his way up the last 700 feet. Fearing the face would again avalanche, we continued in a fierce storm to the small col. In a whiteout Dusan and A1 found a way over the highest bergschrund that rimmed the col.

The next day, from a small peak above the glacier on the west side of the col, we saw that extensive crevasses barred the way to Crillon. The winter had been unusually mild, resulting in late summer conditions on the glaciers. It was now time for the Abbes. From another col, reached after traversing a small snow basin, we could see the Abbe peaks. Abbe itself was hidden, but three others were aligned on the other side of an unnamed glacier below us. P 8410 with a sheer 3500-foot pillar; P 8440, a superb double-summited mountain whose nearly 3000-foot southwest face had several steep ribs of rock with alternating ice gullies; and P 8290, closest to us. Although a steep 300-foot drop to the glacier, we knew that it could be downclimbed. After the frustration of not getting close to Salisbury or Crillon, we looked forward to the smaller, but more attractive rock peaks.

Steve, however, was sick. While A1 nursed him back to health, Dusan and I decided to go for Mount Abbe, but not before he soloed a 7200-foot peak above camp. On a spectacular crisp morning, we descended from the col and walked down the glacier nearly four miles to where a tumbling glacier hung from between Mount Abbe and P 8410. To avoid the threat of ominous ice cliffs that barred the opening between the two peaks, the only feasible route was up a narrow gully of hard snow. Seven hours of effort, partly on hard ice up steeper sections of the glacier but mostly in soft snow forcing us to make upward progress on our knees, placed us just below a col separating the two peaks.

The next morning, June 11, we reached the summit of Mount Abbe’s south peak in four hours. Dusan took the hardest pitch: steep rock overlain with loose snow. From the summit, Abbe’s north peak of the same height, appeared easy. We thought of going over to it, but the sun was already causing small snow avalanches, and we hastily retreated to our bivouac.

Back in Base Camp, Steve had recovered. Following an afternoon bath in Al’s homemade pool, we made plans to climb P 8440 the next day. The climb started in an ice gully west of the mountain’s central rib. Steve’s filming slowed us somewhat, but by midday, we were high on the rib. The rock had been easy to start with, but each succeeding pitch increased in difficulty. A1 led brilliantly, making the F8 to 9 moves look easy. The rest of us struggled up behind him. Late in the afternoon we stopped to eat on a narrow crest of snow that we quickly converted to a comfortable platform. As with all new climbs, the element of uncertainty added a dimension that we all savored.

The weather, which for eight days had been superb, continued to hold. Late that evening we reached the crux: a series of grooves and a wall that would probably require aid. In the twilight we rappelled back to the platform for a chilly bivouac. A1 took us through the aid section the next morning. As I pendulumed across behind the others after cleaning the pitch, a large rock was somehow dislodged from above. Dusan tried to deflect it, but I was struck a hammer-like blow in the shoulder, spinning me to the far side of the pendulum. Incredibly, I was unhurt.

Above the aid pitch, Dusan, whose element was hard ice, whooped for joy as he found a bending groove of water ice that led to the final summit snow slopes. Instead of going to the top, we decided to wait for cooler temperatures and hacked out platforms about 300 feet below the summit. The day was spent in quiet contemplation: reading, sleeping, catching up on diaries. All that was left was a stroll up to the summit and a traverse across the mountain’s upper north face to reach a col at 7800 feet that would enable us to descend the peak’s south side to our Base Camp.

Once on the summit at 10:40 P.M., we were mesmerized by the peaks, valleys, ocean and inland waters that surrounded us. Fairweather, Crillon, Salisbury, Lituya, La Perouse, Bertha and the others were all there. The quiet and solitude of that summit and the complete happiness I felt at being with the best of companions are indelibly etched in my memory. Even after the sun had dropped below the sea of mountains to the northwest, we lingered on the summit in rosy alpenglow. Then it was time to go.

After the accident, Steve and I pushed out to the beach in two-and-one-half days. The storm we encountered most of the way seemed fitting. A last night on the fog-shrouded beach at Reid Inlet, then down the quiet bay to Bartlett Cove where we broke the terrible news of Dusan and Al’s loss to their loved ones and friends.

Summary of Statistics:

Area: Fairweather Range, Alaska.

First Ascents: Mount Abbe, 8200 feet, southeast face, June 11, 1977 (Jagersky, Wickwire).

P 8440, central rib of southwest face, summit reached June 14, 1977 (entire party).

P 7200, east face, June 8, 1977 (Jagersky); second ascent, June 10, 1977 (Givler).

P 6620, west ridge, June 6, 1977 (Givler, Jagersky, Wickwire). Personnel: Alan Givler, Dusan Jagersky, Steve Marts, James Wickwire.

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